- Alex Scarborough, ESPN Staff Writer
Editor's note: The season is over and the Alabama Crimson Tide are national champions yet again. But what happens next? TideNation examines the most pressing storylines of the offseason as the Tide gear up for another title defense.
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- The heart of the defensive line is gone. So is its vocal leader. Its best backup is leaving, too. Three of the top four defensive linemen played their final game with the Alabama Crimson Tide on Monday night in South Florida.
This week marked the beginning of a new era on the defensive front at Alabama. Nose guard Jesse Williams and defensive ends Damion Square and Quinton Dial are all awaiting their heirs. The unit that garners little of the credit yet bears the brunt of the responsibility on defense is getting a makeover.
Who will be the stopgap in the middle of the line, taking on two and three tacklers at a time? Who will be to his left and right at defensive end, pressuring the quarterback and fitting the running lanes? Who will allow the rest of the defense to work?
Nose guard could be a wide open race, but it has a frontrunner in Brandon Ivory, who served as backup to Williams for most of the season. The 6-foot-4, 315-pound sophomore finished with 22 tackles and a sack in 2012. But he'll have to deal with a talented freshman ready to rise up the ranks in Darren Lake, who played in seven games this season. Lake is a load at 6-foot-3 and 315 pounds, yet he possesses good quickness for his size. Seeing him in his big No. 95 jersey is like watching a mirror image of Josh Chapman, who starred at nose two seasons ago.
The return of Ed Stinson will be a welcomed sight for the defensive ends. The junior was a mainstay at the position this season, starting all 14 games. He'll anchor the unit and rotate with a number of other ends, including Jeoffrey Pagan, D.J. Pettway, LaMichael Fanning, Korren Kirven and Dalvin Tomlinson.
Earlier in the year, Saban hinted that had it not been for Tomlinson's injury coming into his freshman year, he might have played. Instead Tomlinson took the redshirt to preserve a year of eligibility.
"Just watching him day-to-day," Saban said. "He has really good quickness. If he wasn’t hurt he’s probably a guy who can help us because he’s one of those quick-twitch guys that -- especially when you play a game like last week, when you’re playing against the spread and you need guys who can run and chase the quarterback, I think he would do a good job in a role like that."
While the additions of Tomlinson and others might bring greater athleticism to the defensive front, the key to its effectiveness will come down to playing smartly within the system. For all a single player can do flying off the edge and chasing down a quarterback, it means nothing to Saban if he doesn't minds his gap assignment and protect against creating a hole the tailback or quarterback can run through.
2dGreg Ostendorf and Alex Scarborough